Shorebirds, Hawks and Extinction

Sanderlings / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Sanderlings / © Bryan Pfeiffer

ON THIS LABOR DAY, you need not labor over shorebirds. As sandpipers and plovers head south this month, I’ll remind you of my Solving Shorebirds post – a guide for landlocked birdwatchers. For those of you already skilled at shorebird identification, take my Shorebird Challenge – a half-dozen quiz photos. Some are tough.

Meanwhile, to mark the 100th anniversary of the demise eradication of the last Passenger Pigeon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s John Fitzpatrick writes in The New York Times about birds and people at risk. Here’s an example of what he means:

“Why should we care about these aridland birds, or any birds? It’s a common question, as elected officials and voters weigh conservation investments alongside health care, immigration and economic issues.

Besides our moral imperative to maintain the earth’s beauty and bounty for future generations to enjoy, it is important to view birds as accessible indicators of the health of our lands and waters. Take those declining meadowlarks as one example: In my home state of Minnesota, where meadowlarks commonly sang atop utility poles back in the 1950s, the patches of wild grasslands they depended on are now horizon-to-horizon farm fields. As a consequence, barges now get stuck in sediment-filled portions of the Mississippi River because grasslands no longer intercept silt-laden runoff waters from farms. The toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that recently rendered Toledo’s water supply undrinkable had a similar origin. In short, healthy bird habitat makes for healthy human habitat.”

Next, you can set your calendar to hawks. They’ll be on the move soon. Here in Vermont, the first wave of southbound Broad-winged Hawks usually happens on the first cool, clear day during the second week of the month, usually after September 9 or so. When the north winds blow, be ready with help from my Hawkwatching Confidential.

Finally, below this immature Red-tailed Hawk, we’ll cling to summer with a slide show of images.

Red-tailed Hawk (without a red tail) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Red-tailed Hawk (without a red tail) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Boobies and Berries


Here’s a Brown Booby from Hawaii (not New York or Vermont).

THE BIG, BREAKING BIRDING NEWS in Vermont and New York is a Brown Booby at the Lake Champlain Bridge at Crown Point, NY.

Noted for a gangly apperance, big feet and spectacular plunge-dives, Brown Boobies occasional stray north – mostly along the US coasts.

For the state listers among you, this booby is indeed visting the Vermont side of the lake. Here’s a dynamic map of Brown Booby sightings across the continent. And here’s Ron Payne’s photo of our particular oddball visitor, which was first discovered Saturday and seen by many birders on Sunday. If it’s around today, I’ll update this post as soon as I get a report.

I chased no booby on Sunday. I went out instead for berries. Now awating a romp with your palate is one of our most spectacular summer fruits: Creeping Snowberry. You gotta eat this thing. Here’s my over-the-top (and warranted) ode to a tiny white fruit.

During a high traverse on the Worcester Range in central Vermont yesterday, Ruth and I found a bumper crop of these natural “Tic Tacs.” But don’t wait to find your own. We’ve got another week or two of snowberry season.

Our day on the trail began with with the sunrise from White Rocks (just south of Mt. Hunger), where we had spent the night watching stars.


Zebras, Beauty and Us

Zebra Clubtail

BEFORE I LOSE IT OVER ZEBRAS, you must understand one thing about dragonflies: Not all dragonflies are created equal. Check that. Actually, they weren’t created at all. Not all dragonflies are descended equally from a common ancestor – at least in the eyes of characters like me who chase these insects to the far corners of the planet. As I see it, some dragonflies are more equal, more electrifying, more everything, than others.

My example is Zebra Clubtail (Stylurus scudderi). That’s him above from Lewis Creek in Starkboro, Vermont, last week. When I saw this dragonfly, I wet my pants. Okay, I was standing in Lewis Creek, so that’s actually how I wet my pants. But this dragonfly makes me euphoric. And I’m not entirely sure why. So I’m developing a theory on wildlife and aesthetics.

The theory begins with this hypothesis: rarity bestows beauty. Wildlife that we rarely get to see, the odd and elusive, looks to us inordinately beautiful when we actually see it in the field. We must know in advance of the critter’s scarcity for this condition to work.

Ring-billed Gull and Black-tailed Gull

Ring-billed Gull and Black-tailed Gull

The beauty that rarity bestows, however, isn’t always warranted. Take Black-tailed Gull. It lives in east Asia. It’s rare here in the U.S. Really rare. So when a Black-tailed Gull showed up in Charlotte, Vermont, in October of 2005, birders in droves came to see it. This gull should have been in the Sea of Japan rather than on the shores of Lake Champlain. It was a big event. And as the gull, acting like any other gull, sat there before the besotted crowd and a battery of expensive optics,  I recall at least one of those birders gushing, “It’s so beautiful. It’s such a beautiful gull!”

Really? Any more beautiful than the common Ring-billed Gulls with which this Asian was consorting that day? Maybe the red tip on a Black-tailed Gull’s bill beats the ring on a Ring-billed Gull. Maybe. But I find our common Ring-bill more elegant. Rarity bestows beauty, even if it’s unwarranted.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (above) and Widow Skimmer (below) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer (above) and Widow Skimmer (below) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Which brings me to Zebra Clubtail. Remember, not all dragonflies are equal. Some fly around your pond edge in abundance and sit there like Ring-billed Gulls. They’re the sparrows of dragonflies. I enjoy them nonetheless. I’ve spent many hours bringing these backyard dragonflies to life and light through photography, including the two images I’ve posted here of common beasts going by the names Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) and Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa). They are fine dragonflies; I’m glad to have them among our fauna.

But they’ve got nothing on Zebra Clubtails.

Zebra Clubtails belong to a genus called Stylurus. The name might derive from “stylus” – or needle – because some of them have long, elegant abdomens (rather than the club-like abdomen displayed in our Zebra Clubtail). We’ve got only 11 Stylurus clubtails in the US (30 in the world). They fly – some like cruise missiles – on rivers. And many are exceedingly elusive. There could be hundreds of these clubtails on a stretch of river, but you’ll never see one. They spend the day hanging (needle pointed downward) high from leaves on trees along the riverbank, only dropping to the river now and then to rocket around and kill something or have sex in the air way out over the middle of the river where you can’t reach them with your net or see them with your binoculars.

Stylurus clubtails can be like a prize you’ll never win, a job you’ll never get, a fruit you shall never pick. One particular species, rarely seen as an adult (even when we see scores of its nymphs – the immature form) is aptly named Elusive Clubtail – so much so that it’s hard to learn much about the habits of this particular dragonfly. We purposefully alter its scientific name, Stylurus notatus, to be “Stylurus no datus.” I myself achieved some notoriety last summer when I found and photographed the first adult Elusive Clubtail, freshly emerged and still soft, ever encountered in the province of Saskatchewan.

On a hot day, walking these sand- and gravel-bottomed streams (as I did with my pals Josh and Wally last week), beneath a rich riparian zone, is like walking on clouds. I can think of no finer way to spend a day in August. But the best thing about this pursuit is that unlike most of their congeners (their relatives in the same genus) Zebra Clubtails sometimes perch on rocks, gravel bars, fallen logs and stout twigs beside the stream. And seeing a Stylurus clubtail in plain view is like gazing at the aurora borealis or at a solar eclipse, at a supermodel or a Hell’s Angel, for as long as you care to look. It is immeasurably satisfying, so much so that you feel you must avert your gaze, that you are unworthy of this beauty or rarity.

zebraIs it the rarity bestowing this beauty? Perhaps not. Casual observers of dragonflies might see in Zebra Clubtail nothing particularly distinctive. All summer I’ve offered blog readers a steady diet of dragonflies, including clubtails, notably in a post titled The Gomphids and another cool but gruesome dispatch called Gomphicide. To many of you, all these dragonflies look alike. And, in fact, many of them do. But zebras are nothing if not resplendent in pattern. And that, I believe, accounts for much of Zebra Clubtail’s appeal.

Relative simplicity rules in this dragonfly: black, yellow and green. No complications. And the pattern on its abdomen – those yellow bands around the base of eight of the 10 abdominal segments – is rare among dragonflies. I believe those rings account in large part for this dragonfly’s distinctiveness, appeal and shocking beauty. It’s a pattern making this insect instantly recognizable to anyone who cares to learn and look. And knowledge, knowing a species by its name, is pleasure.

Consider this comparison: Zebra Clubtail and one of its more dazzling relatives, Serpent Ringtail (Erpetogomphus lampropeltis), which I photographed in Arizona. Yep, you can’t argue with the shock-and-awe of an aqua body and blue eyes. But there is complication in the markings of this insect: no simple bands on the abdomen, no uniformity of color. Beautiful complications, to be sure, but the symmetry and patterns on the Zebra resonate with the pleasure centers in my brain and my DNA.  (Click on the image for a bigger view.)

Zebra Clubtail (Stylurus scudderi) and Serpent Ringtail (Erpetogomphus lampropeltis) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Zebra Clubtail (Stylurus scudderi) and Serpent Ringtail (Erpetogomphus lampropeltis) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Zebra Clubtail is a damned striking animal. Perhaps, yes, because this is no ordinary clubtail – it’s a Stylurus, after all, and by no means common or one of those backyard pond dragonflies everyone sees. Even so, ignore my theory if you want and its hypothesis that rarity bestows beauty. The hypothesis is easily falsifiable and tossed aside anyway. I suspect, however, that it does apply here – at least to some extent.

Yet I need no condition of scarcity to enjoy this insect. It is plainly spectacular.

What do you think?

Zebra Clubtail (Stylurus scudderi) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Zebra Clubtail (Stylurus scudderi) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

A New Vermont Damselfly

Some of the vital parts of River Bluet (Enallagma anna).

Some of the vital parts of River Bluet (Enallagma anna).

THE DIVERSITY OF LIFE IN VERMONT, at least what we know of it, is now a bit richer. Nine days after the discovery of a dragonfly not previously known from the state, we have a new damselfly as well: River Bluet (Enallagma anna). Yeah, that’s the beast above – at least an essential part of him. Mike Blust and Laura Gaudette found this damselfly on the Ompompanoosuc River in Thetford on Monday. You may recall that Laura achived notariety for discovering that new dragonfly earlier this month – Banded Pennant.

Boreal Bluet (Enallagma boreale) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Boreal Bluet (Enallagma boreale) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Many of you know these bluets. They’re the dainty damsels – about an inch long – that float at pond edges and streamsides. Sometimes they’ll land on your canoe or kayak. To your right is a typical bluet species, Boreal Bluet (Enallagma boreale) from a bog in northern Vermont.

Bluets embody insect diversity. And a general rule of insect diversity is that rarely is there ever just one. We don’t have only one kind of firefly in Vermont; we have about 20 different firefly species. We don’t merely have bumblebees in Vermont; we have roughly 15 distinct bumblebee species.

And now we have a 17th bluet species.

Most bluet species are indeed blue and black. Some of them appear so similar in their patterning (or “plumage” for birders) that we can’t easily tell them apart. As a result, we net ‘em and have a closer look at their, well, at their private parts.

That’s what Mike and Laura did on Monday. It’s routine. You see some bluets, and if you don’t have binoculars or you’re past 50 and forgot your eyeglasses, you net a few and have a look at their “appendages,” their nasty bits. It’s our idea of a good time on a lake or river.

enallagma-terminalsPictured to the left are the terminal ends of various male bluet species; among many, the most distinctive characteristic isn’t the color pattern, but rather those odd, clamp-like appendages. Those appendages are what we seek out when we identify these little blue damselflies.

When he netted a bluet on the Ompompanoosuc, Mike fully expected it to be one of the common species we find all summer in Vermont. But the moment Mike looked at the appendages through his magnifying lens, the known biological diversity of Vermont changed forever. What Mike saw is what you see in the photo at the top of this blog post. In fact, we don’t even need to see the rest of the bug to know that Mike had caught Vermont’s first River Bluet. That mitten-like shape of the top appendage is diagnostic. It says River Bluet. It says it all. And nothing says it all like sex.

Males use those appendages while mating – basically as a clamp for holding females during copulation. Because many bluet species look a lot alike, and many different species can consort like folks at a nudist colony, the clamp ensures that he’s mating with a female of his own kind, a female of his own species. His clamp (actually called cerci and paraproct) fits only with the female of his species. It’s like a lock-and-key system to certify that he’s hooked up with the right female. If the clamp don’t fit, you must, uh, quit. (Sorry.)

When it fits, he’s clamped to the top of her prothorax, a section of the body behind her head – it appears he’s got her by the scruff of her neck. I’m planning a longer blog post to describe what happens next. But some of you already know – and many of you have seen dragonflies or damselflies in what we call the “copulatory wheel.”

Here’s a pair of Subarctic Bluets (Coenagrion interrogatum) in that wheel, with the male “on top” and his appendages clamped firmly behind the female’s head. These two are also linked below his mid-section, where he’s transfering sperm to the tip of the female’s abdomen. Below this dirty insect image is a photo of Mike and Laura’s now-famous River Bluet (Enallagma anna) in the hand.

By the way, I’ll see if I can determine who was the Anna for which this damselfly is named. In any event, Mike says, “Somehow it seems odd to be flaunting anna’s male parts.”



Subarctic Bluets (Coenagrion interrogatum) copulating / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Vermont's first River Bluet (Enallagma anna) / © Mike Blust

Vermont’s first River Bluet (Enallagma anna) / © Mike Blust

Naked in Norway

ruth-naked-dry-brush-600x882IN THE ARCTIC life wanders close to earth. Birch and juniper, barely recognizable as trees, creep like vines across the endless tundra. Mountain Fritillary butterflies flash orange and float over an ankle-high orchard of slaty crowberries, red lingonberries and orange cloudberries. Rock Ptarmigans, marked like lichen and granite, strut and display on a bedrock stage.

In the Arctic there are no hiding places. Ruth and I are giants walking among these low plants and northern animals. Only taller than us are the reindeer and mountains. We step over chubby, chestnut-and-black Norway Lemmings. We drink straight from rivers beside nesting White-fronted Dippers. We find some of the northernmost dragonflies on Earth. And none of us escapes the daylight. Always exposed on this hike, and during a heat wave, we swim naked in crystalline waters with Arctic Loons.

In the Arctic, Ruth and I also find confirmation – proof that the sun indeed will never set; that Willow Ptarmigans utter the craziest song I’ve heard in nature; that a cloudberry, which looks like a corpulent orange raspberry, tastes like an apricot-mango smoothie; that the planet is warming; and that unspeakable beauty and biological diversity lie so far north of the Equator.

But before you see it for yourself in my 90-second slideshow from our trip to Norway, much of it above the Arctic Circle, allow me first a bit of America-bashing.

Here are two things I foolishly packed for this trip: a headlamp and water treatment. Wait, make that three things: I packed extra batteries for the headlamp. Back home now, everyone asks if it was hard to sleep outside in the 24-hour light. Never. In the tent or even outside it, we slept like college kids home for the weekend. Walking all day does that for you. That and being away — far away — from the routine. Away from the littered landscape of the glowing screen there is comfort in the glowing night. 

A high camp in Norway at 1:30AM.

A high camp in Norway at 1:30AM.

We never treated the drinking water we ladled from lakes and rivers. No one does that in Norway. Most everyone does it here in the US. What a luxury to hike in a place with pure water. And what a contrast to home. Imagine the outrage, Ruth says, if we had to treat the air we breathed. Why not the same over our water?

And on this trip were the constant reminders of America’s failings by comparison to many places in Europe. Trains and buses took us wherever we wanted to go, including (thanks to a kind bus driver) to the trailhead to one of our hikes. (Internet alone on the trains in Sweden was faster than what I often find here at home.) Health care? The Europeans offer condolences. Our breakfast at a hotel in Bodø, Norway (north of the Arctic Circle) – sliced meats and seedy breads, eggs and sausage, fresh fruit and elegant cheeses, even caviar – reminded me of how we’ve ruined and cheapened breakfast here in the US. Hell, I’d move to Scandinavia alone for its diversity of yogurt-like dairy products and its mustards and other assorted cool foods available in toothpaste tubes.

The woman who set out breakfast at the hotel talked with us of geopolitics rather than the latest demagoguery from Fox “News.” And after one hike we discussed politics and Norway’s strategic position during the Cold War with the working guy who gave us a lift in his battered Toyota (most people in Norway seem to drive Volvo station wagons).

Norway’s economy today features highly progressive income taxes, a generous welfare state, and abundant prosperity. (Food prices in Norway are off the charts – we ate lots of peanut butter, cheese, salami, crackers and oatmeal; we saved our money to splurge on smoked salmon.) Much of Norway’s prosperity, of course, comes from North Sea petroleum reserves.

“You know,” I warned the guy in the Toyota, “American politicians like to invade countries for oil.”

We laughed. But it got me thinking: Forget the Mideast and its dusty, corrupt petro-kingdoms. Let’s invade someplace with cloudberries, Willow Ptarmigans, fjords and the best water you’ve ever tasted. Let’s invade Norway. We’d get an official outpost for watching Putin during this new Cold War. And we’d even get salmon – lots of salmon. 

No bombs in this invasion, however. Just boots on the ground – boots on the ground but no guns. Actually, on second thought, let’s not invade. We would trash the place. We’d start by wrecking breakfast.

Here’s your slideshow:

And here’s my bird list from Denmark, Sweden and Norway

Mute Swan
Greylag Goose
Barnacle Goose
Common Teal
Tufted Duck
Common Eider
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Willow Ptarmigan
Rock Ptarmigan
Arctic Loon
Little Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Northern Fulmar
Sooty Shearwater
Storm Petrel
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
Grey Heron
White-tailed Eagle
Red Kite
Common Buzzard
Honey Buzzard
Common Crane
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Ringed Plover
European Golden Plover
Wood Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Common Redshank
Eurasian Curlew
Snipe sp.
Great Skua
Parasitc Jaeger (Arctic Skua)
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake
Common Tern
Arctic Tern
Atlantic Puffin
Black Guillemot
Common Murre (Guillemot)
Rock Dove
Wood Pigeon
Common Swift
Black Woodpecker
Green Woodpecker sp.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Barn Swallow
House Martin
Meadow Pipit
Tree Pipit
White Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
Grey Wagtail
White-throated Dipper
Thrush Nightingale
Ring Ouzel
Willow Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Crested Tit
Willow Tit
Great Grey Shrike
Eurasian Jay
Siberian Jay
Hooded Crow
Common Raven
House Sparrow
Common Redpoll
European Goldfinch
Reed Bunting

A New Vermont Dragonfly


SALUTE THE FLAG. That dragonfly above is now a bit of Vermont natural history — the first Banded Pennant (Celethemis fasciata) ever documented in the state. The perceptive naturalist Laura Gaudette found and photographed him while kayaking on Sadawga Lake in Whitingham yesterday. Congrats to Laura!


Range of Banded Pennant (until its discovery in Vermont yesterday).

The “pennants” are among the few dragonflies whose wings are marked a bit like butterfies. And they perch according to their name – like flags at the tip of twigs or stems. They even sway and pivot in the summer breezes.

Banded Pennant’s range is the south-central US into southern New England. (That’s a range map for the species from Odonata Central before Laura’s discovery.) So her find represents a northern extention of this dragonfly in the region. Global warming? Perhaps. We’ll see if there’s a breeding population at the site.

I’ve included below my own photo of Banded Pennant from southern Connecticut, along with the two other pennant species here in Vermont – Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) and the elegant Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa).

Addendum (August 4): Some folks who think they themselves have been seeing Banded Pennant are most likely seeing a similar species that’s quite common in Vermont, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, which itself looks a lot like the Common Whitetail. I’ve included a photo at the bottom of this post to help clarify the matter.

Banded Pennant (Celithemis fasciata) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Banded Pennant (Celithemis fasciata) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) / © Bryan Pfeiffer



True North


You can lose your life in Norway — the life you might decide to leave behind for a new one here in true north.

In Norway Ruth and I drink straight from the rivers and lakes. Above treeline, as we hike endless slopes of heather, lichen and rock, Willow Ptarmigans dance at our feet and issue the craziest song north of the Equator. Meadow Pipits flutter at our heads like daydreams. And the plaintive calls of Golden Plovers soften the crusty slopes.

Here there is no night — only a red glow in the sky and a gentle orange bathing the big land, a sunset that lingers a few hours until it becomes sunrise. And now, after nearly a week in central Norway hiking with our dear friends Pelle and Lina, Ruth and I are on a 12-hour train trip even farther toward the light — and life above the Arctic Circle.

The scale and beauty here I cannot describe — at least not yet, not in any quick blog post. But here are a few photos. As you’ll see, I’m still largely in “critter mode.” Below you’ll find Siberian Jay, what is probably Scarce Copper (Lycaena vigaureae), Sedge Darner (Aeshna juncea), Chaffinch, and some of the landscape. (I do like this new Panasonic DMC-ZS40 point-and-shoot as a travel camera.)

More landscape is coming, including the drama of the Norwegian coast, but perhaps not until we get back online at the end of the month.







Northbound in Sweden


How I have admired Sweden from afar: Carl Linnaeus. The practical Socialism. The Swedes named Lindström, Holström, Zetterberg and others who have helped my Detroit Red Wings win ice hockey’s Stanley Cup.

I am afar no more. Now I love Sweden from within. Ruth and I are on train north toward a boreal palace of conifers, bogs and more friends. We have just left the boundless kindness of Bitte and Kotten and their small farm in southern Sweden. Before departing, we helped them bring in (mostly by pitchfork and sweat) three months of hay for the sheep. That’s Bitte behind me.

We’re finding time to chase nature here. Rather than hauling all my camera gear (big lenses), I’m packing a Panasonic 30x point-and-shoot. Until I blog rhapsodically about this camera, allow me to call it a miracle in my pocket. And until flashier wildlife forthcoming, here’s a Thrush Nightingale shot hand-held at 30x. You can see the Nightingale’s meal of a sow bug and a bee (or bee mimic).  Oh, by the way, Air France found my luggage.



Among Dead Insects (Again)


Although they’ve been dead for more than two centuries, there is life in these dragonflies. The life of a legendary biologist here in Copenhagen.

I’m working in the Zoologisk Museum at Kobenhavns Universitet with holotype specimens from the Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius. It’s a bit like working with the specimens of Carl Linnaeus.

Mostly I came for one specimen in particular — she’s there at the lower left: Pantala flavescens (Wandering Glider), the most cosmopolitan insect on Earth (and in large part the subject of a book I’m writing). This is the very specimen, collected in India, that Fabricius used to name and describe this species to science more than two centuries ago. Or so we think.  There’s a mystery here to solve.

I’d tell you more but Air France has lost my baggage — all my backpacking gear — putting the rest of this trip with Ruth (hiking in Norway) in jeopardy.




A thunderstorm trashed the Independence Day party here in Montpelier yesterday. After cancelling the parade, the city shot some fireworks at 7 PM or so. Underwhelming is how I’d describe it – sort of like a drive-in movie at noon or stargazing at dusk. So here, from nature, is an alternative fireworks display from places I’ve been across the continent. Explosive stuff. Happy Fourth!



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